On change

 

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Artechouse, New York City, New York, 2019 (digital) © Gabriela De Golia

 

The following text is a sermon I preached at my church, the First Church of Middletown, Connecticut, on Sunday, July 12th, 2020, while our Senior Pastor, the Rev. Julia Burkey was away. In this piece, I share my perspective on the subversive rational Jesus employed when deciding to use parables as a method of teaching and the ways in which current movements for justice reflect this type of subversion. Among other things, I also talk about how God and moments of change are reflective of one another (rather than buying into the notion of God as an immovable constant).

(Additional context: Rev. Julia’s time with our church is ending, which is referenced at the end of the piece and inspired some of my musings. This piece was also written during a time of heightened social unrest in the United States, namely with regard to racism and police brutality, which also inspired much of the writing).

The scripture passage that inspired this sermon is the Parable of the Sower, including the parable from chapter 13 in the Gospel of Matthew and the science fiction story by Octavia Butler.

Sermon: “God is Change”

May the words of my mouth
And the meditations of all of our hearts
Be aligned with you,
Our Beloved God,
You who are our rock and our redeemer.
Amen.

Before I delve into musings about the Parable of the Sower, I’d like to contextualize it a bit within the larger Gospel of Matthew. This Gospel is the first in the New Testament, and its writer seeks to portray Jesus as a Jewish King and the Son of God who serves as a contemporary Moses figure offering a reinterpretation of Jewish Law in contrast to what spiritual authorities were espousing at that time. Jesus is working within a Jewish framework, and the use of parables which is so common in the Gospels is actually an element of Jewish tradition. In parables, Jesus uses classic imagery pulled from Jewish prophets such as Isaiah, to convey his message. Unfortunately, Jesus is portrayed in this Gospel as a largely misunderstood and rejected spiritual teacher. Rejection and misunderstanding are what largely lead him to begin using parables as a teaching and communication style.

Leading up to the Parable of the Sower in Chapter 13, the Gospel of Matthew is devoid of parables. Before Chapter 13, Jesus delivers his teachings in mostly prose-like language. While those initial teachings were received well by many, they were rejected by the spiritual authorities and many others. In the chapter right before that of the Parable of the Sower, Jesus has intense conflicts with spiritual authorities over Sabbath and other matters, leading said authorities to decide they must eventually kill Jesus. It is at this point that Jesus switches from using more prosaic language to engaging in the more poetic language of parables.

The word “parable” derives from the Greek words meaning “to throw” and “alongside” which, by extension, has been used to convey analogy, comparison, and illustration. Parables are didactic stories that illustrate instructive lessons. They use imagery that is meant to make us draw comparisons between things. In Jesus’s case, his parables are used as tools to help listeners draw comparisons between the world as it is and what the Kindom of God might look like.

People often portray parables as a more accessible manner of getting information across because they employ imagery that would be familiar to many folks, such as farming metaphors. But that’s not entirely accurate. When Jesus starts using parables in his speeches, even the disciples ask him, “why are you teaching in these unclear ways?” So clearly, even those closest to him were confused by his communication strategy, and we can only assume Jesus’s parables went over many people’s heads. I would argue that this lack of clarity was actually intentional on Jesus’s part, and the timing of when he starts using parables speaks to this, for it is only after a knockdown fight with authorities that he switches to this mode of communication.

Emily Dickenson, the famous poet, once said, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” In other words, reveal the truth, but not in a straightforward manner. Indeed, throughout the Bible, for example, we witness God revealing Godself in very slanted ways: through burning bushes, smoke towers, God’s backside, and all sorts of other ways that don’t allow witnesses to see God clearly. Jesus, in using parables, is following in God’s footsteps, using “slanted” imagery to get at the teachings of God. I think there’s a psychological tactic to this.

It’s very obvious that most people most of the time don’t respond much to straightforward facts and information. If that were the case, we would have solved the climate crisis long ago, but instead, many are still debating whether or not climate change is a thing despite the obvious facts that it is. Oftentimes, what leads us to process and integrate information is not facts, but stories. Jesus’s use of parables is a tactic in bypassing the rationalizations and overly logical gateways in our minds and spirits that often prevent us from accessing deeper truths that go beyond the mere intellect. That doesn’t mean that everyone will understand or be receptive to the stories and their teachings — in fact, many won’t open themselves up to them — but such a tactic helps to lower people’s defenses and reach those who have not only a desire to intellectually understand of the Word but a willingness to be moved to their core by the Word. And parables also left those who were hostile to Jesus with less to accuse him of, because, after all, he was just “telling stories.” Jesus’s parables were thus a way of subverting oppressive power while still reaching those who would be most willing to join him in the task of building the Kindom of God, turning mere admirers into faithful followers.

So, what exactly does Jesus talk about in the Parable of the Sower? In this parable, Jesus portrays himself as a sower who is scattering seeds across various types of soil. This imagery relates to a well-known Jewish prophesy, that of Isaiah from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. These seeds are the budding Kindom of God, namely the message of Christ that is seeking to take root in the hearts of people so the Kindom can spread far and wide. The four types of soil upon which the seeds are scattered are often interpreted as representing different categories of people. The first soil is conventionally seen as representing those who have no interest in furthering the Kindom or are actively hostile towards it. The second and third soils are usually depicted as representing those who show interest but then fail to truly believe and help build the Kindom. The fourth soil is regularly described as “good” and often interpreted as representing people who truly see, hear, and believe the Word, and who will help bear the fruit of the Kindom of God.

While helpful in some contexts, I usually take issue with this interpretation that categorizes individuals as belonging to one type of soil or the other. I think that makes it too easy to fall into the thinking that “only this type of person [namely, our understanding of what it means to be a Christian] is truly faithful.” This can result in us projecting our own lack of receptivity and spiritual insecurities onto others. While it’s easy to think of ourselves as the “good soil” because many of us are believe we are dedicated to the message of Christ and God, I think it’s more helpful to understand each soil as a state of being we each find ourselves in at various times. Sometimes we’re receptive to the message, and other times (like, 75% of the time, according to scripture) we’re not as open to the Word and helping to build the Kindom of God. I, for one, can attest to the fact that I am often disconnected from Christ and God due to anxieties, distractions, intellectualization, and lack of vulnerability, among other things. So a question that I have been holding within myself is how can I cultivate my inner landscape in such a way that the soil in my spirit can become more and more receptive to Christ’s message and the budding Kindom of God?

I think an understanding of land and farming can help to answer that question. When preparing the soil for sowing and planting, one must till it, meaning the land must be broken up and turned over. One also usually puts some form of manure or fertilizer on the soil before tiling to make it more amenable to growth. This means that “good” soil is actually broken, messy, and even stinky. Preparing our hearts and spirits to receive the Word is much like that, in that we have to allow ourselves to be broken, turned over, and covered in unappealing circumstances a lot of the time if we are to allow God to flow through our lives. We are instructed to allow ourselves to be moved, even broken, by change and circumstance, which can include feeling grief and other unpleasant emotions that we often try to avoid. This isn’t to say we should lend ourselves to harmful situations, but rather that we must allow ourselves to experience the unknowns, discomforts, and growth pains associated with change if we are to let God move us towards where God wants us to be. If we focus instead on remaining pristine and perfect and untouched by life’s circumstances, we’re actually closed off from God’s transformative grace. Just like sowing seeds, letting ourselves be transformed by God requires a letting go, not just letting go of the seeds, but letting go of the process and trusting in powers far beyond us (such as the rain, the sun, and God) to do their thing. Great transformations rarely happen through our own efforts alone; they usually happen because forces beyond us are also playing a role in the changes we are undergoing.

Notions of change and transformation are ones that we don’t often associate with Godself. We often think change is either entirely bad or that it is a positive result of God’s actions, but rarely do we think of change as God’s very self. We often think of God as immutable, unchanging, constant. While those portrayals can be reassuring at times, they can also contribute to us avoiding change when it’s necessary. Lately, though, I have been inspired by teachers who offer a different view of God, one that actually depicts change and transformation as inherent to the very nature of God. This idea is actually a core teaching from a modern-day rendering of the Biblical Parable of the Sower, that is, The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, who was a Black female science fiction writer. Science fiction and other forms of speculative literature are often similar to Biblical parables in that they draw a comparison between our current reality and another reality that is meant to inform us as to how we can move from where we are to where we want and ought to be. I have been particularly interested in the ways Black and Indigenous thinkers are envisioning possible, beautiful futures as a way to help me envision and work towards building the Kindom of God. In listening to the dreams Black and Indigenous folks have of the future, I think we become better poised to further Christ’s work and message because Jesus always centered those who were unjustly targeted by worldly authorities. In Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the core spiritual tenant put forth by the main character is as follows:

“All that you touch,
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
God
Is Change.”

I find this teaching particularly poignant during a moment in history such as this, when so many Black, Indigenous, and other people of color are demanding that we change the way things are so we can live in a more just society (one that I would argue is reflective of the Kindom of God). I think it’s an incredibly potent time to view God as change, as thinkers like Octavia Butler might argue.

Bringing these ideas even closer to home: a question I’m holding is how can I practice trusting that our congregation’s transition with the upcoming departure of Rev. Julia is itself a manifestation of God as change. Further reflecting on the aforementioned quote from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, how can I remind myself of and affirm the ways that Rev. Julia has shaped and changed me and our entire church. Furthermore, how can I reflect on the ways First Church has shaped and changed Rev. Julia, and how all of this interdependent shaping and change might be reflective of godly relationships of mutuality and connection? Even though we are undergoing a physical separation with Rev. Julia, thinking of God as change reminds me that even this change is a chance to further deepen a connection with God by relying on God’s guidance and grace throughout the transition.

With all of the change happening in our lives, our church, and the world, I pray that we allow our souls and the soul of the church to be tilled through these changes and become prepared for sowing so the seeds of the Word can take root within us and blossom into wholesome fruit. May we remember that God moves through change, that God is change, and that by trusting in that change, we are allowing God to flow through our lives.

Thank you for listening, and peace be with you. Amen.

On apocalypses

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Mammoth Hotsprings, Yellowstone, Wyoming, 2011 (film) © Gabriela De Golia

Apocalypse comes from the Greek word meaning “to reveal.” An apocalypse is an uncovering more than it is an undoing, helping us see things as they are and as they have been for a while: fractured and disconnected, centered on profit instead of community, individualistic, unsustainable, harmful, etc. The systems we have been living under are collapsing under their oppressive weight.

The COVID-19/coronavirus crisis is an era of death, not just of physical bodies but of the myths we’ve absorbed about our existence (namely, the myth that we are independent individuals as opposed to interdependent collectives). We are experiencing the death of our world as we’ve known it because the social structures and stories we’ve known can no longer hold themselves together.

Yet this time can also be a moment of birthing. We can bring a new world into being if we let ourselves process what is happening and tend to the seedlings of transformation that are seeking to take root and sprout. There isn’t only death in our midst; life is stirring under the soil, desperate to burst forth. Like compost, we can create new growth from the debris of our past.

We must help this burgeoning life to emerge by taking big and small steps towards a new world. We must nourish resilience if we are to bring a new, more sustainable, and equitable world into being. We must harness the tension that’s accumulating during this crisis to propel us forward into a new era of social, political, personal, economic, spiritual, etc. transformation. The tools for a revolution of love are here and the stage is set. Let’s do this.

In addition to basic hygiene guidelines like washing hands and self-quarantining, here are some ways you can practice helping new life emerge in this time of death and dying:

  1. Stay connected emotionally despite physical isolation. Reach out to your people in whatever ways you can through digital means, letter writing, social media, etc. Connection is crucial during crises and times of imposed isolation.
  2. Prioritize your wellbeing. Don’t give up your responsibilities to others, but make clear to yourself and your community what you can and cannot offer at this time. You are a human being with limits on your capacity. Your burnout will harm the people you care for, so be clear and real about your boundaries. Be very diligent when it comes to caring for your physical, emotional, and mental health.
  3. Permit yourself to be where you are. Whether you feel panicked or calm, how you are feeling is a reflection of the ways your body and psyche are processing this experience based on past traumas/experiences. There is no universally appropriate way to be feeling in light of all this. Grieve the losses this situation has thrust upon you and celebrate the silver linings. Give yourself wide berths as you navigate these waters.
  4. At the same time, try to make decisions from a place of love, rather than fear. If you’re feeling unsettled, engage in healthy self-soothing until you can make decisions from the perspective of, “what’s the most loving and life-giving thing I can do for myself and others right now?”
  5. Do less, not more. Our nervous systems are more sensitive than we realize, and they need lots of love right now. Our brains are overwhelmed, and we need to give ourselves space to literally clear neural pathways. What’s the least you can do right now to get by? What tasks can wait or be removed from your list of to-dos? Sleep as much as you need (though if you struggle with depression, don’t stay in bed more than you need to avoid the onset of an episode).
  6. Create some structure amidst the chaos. Our brains need at least a small amount of order to feel safe. Try making a daily schedule for yourself that’s not overtaxing but helps you stay focused on the things you really need to do.
  7. Model healthy crisis response. Children learn how to handle crises by watching how the adults around them do so. If you manage this time by moving from a place of love over fear, you will be teaching another generation how to better care for themselves and the world.
  8. If you’re healthy, offer assistance to vulnerable folks, including the elderly and immunocompromised. Create local community networks where resources and tasks can be shared (like getting groceries for your vulnerable neighbors). We must engage in physical distancing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help each other out responsibly.
  9. Let this moment radicalize you. To be radical means to address something “at its root.” This crisis wouldn’t be so drastic if we had universal healthcare, paid sick leave, and many other social systems that valued people’s lives over monetary profit. This situation is a political crisis as much as it is a health crisis, and we must address the root causes (namely, social policies) that created it. Donate to a political campaign that is pushing for radical social reform, even if it’s $5/month. Call your representatives demanding that evictions be banned for the duration of the pandemic, that utility companies not be allowed to shut off power/water/gas, and to prioritize the most vulnerable. If your local politicians are enacting progressive crisis response strategies, demand that those stay in place after the pandemic has passed. Organize. Vote accordingly.
  10. Cultivate joy and allow yourself to feel pleasure. Yes, there’s a crisis happening, but it won’t get any better by being depressed or angry or anxious all the time. The idea that we aren’t allowed to experience happiness while others are suffering is codependent nonsense. Make love, sing in the shower, watch your favorite movie, eat your favorite comfort food, do at least one thing a day that can boost your mood and remind you that there is beauty worth living for in this world. Moving from a place of joy will sustain you for the growing revolution.

We are witnessing an apocalypse, but that doesn’t mean everything is over. It means a new promise is revealing itself. We are on the precipice of a revolution of love that is teaching us how to live interconnectedly. It’s on us to accept its invitation to change our world into a better version of itself.

On resonance

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The Grand Tetons at sunset, Wyoming, 2011 (film, Nikon) © Gabriela De Golia

 

Content disclaimer: this musing is a bit science-focused at first, which I personally love but know can be intimidating for some. It grows into an interdisciplinary piece though, touching on spirituality, social theory, and more. I’ve tried my best to write about science in accessible terms, so if it isn’t your thing, have no fear! I gotchyu.

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There are many ways to define resonance whether you’re talking about physics, chemistry, relationships, or any number of topics. All point to a common theme, though: it represents the amplification of a particular state when it encounters something else in that same state. It’s a co-creative and mutually growthful occurrence.

The most common example of this has to do with sound. Most of us have experienced it: we’re playing an instrument with others or singing in a group and, suddenly, the sound we individually produce “jumps” to a much higher level (also known as a higher amplitude) because it’s matched up with the frequency produced by another object or person. This is because the frequencies literally add onto one another so their total strength is much greater than their individual parts. The sound we made alone is nothing compared to that which was created together.

I personally love graphs because they are simple and often artistic representations of complex information. I’ve included one here about the concept of resonance that I found on PhysicsNet:

 

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Graph demonstrating vibration amplification when resonance is achieved, (c) PhysicsNet

In this graph, f(o) represents the resonant frequency. When you hit this by getting an object to vibrate in a particular way, you see the amplitude of the vibration (the strength of it, in other words) suddenly jumps by leaps and bounds. It’s like hitting the musical/physical jackpot; it’s where you get the most bang for your buck.

You can achieve this resonance goldmine by joining in with something else that’s vibrating at the same frequency (such as the music example from above), or by reaching an individual object’s or your own “natural frequency”. For an example of natural frequency, think of making a crystal cup “sing” by wetting your finger and pressing it along a glass’s crystal rim in circular motions. When doing that, you’ll feel the cup vibrate more and more strongly and start to “sing” once you get a good rhythm going. You’re hitting its natural frequency there, making it go into resonance.

For those who sing in a group setting, like a choir, you know when you’ve hit resonance — the sound of the group utterly changes, along with the energy of the space (including in your body). I mean this very literally: energy changes by virtue of the physical vibrations coalescing and becoming much stronger, so you feel a vibrational shift. I also mean it in a more intuitive manner: when you hit resonance, you feel more “in tune” (get it?) with your surroundings. Because you literally are.

In addition to being an amazing scientific phenomenon, resonance is an incredibly helpful concept for me when making decisions and/or thinking about spirituality, relationships, and many other aspects of life and society.

We’ve all experienced a circumstance in which there are many different options we can choose from. To help clarify what the best choice is, we create pros vs. cons lists, ask our friends and family for guidance on what to do, or leave it up to chance and flip a coin because we literally can’t make the decision for ourselves. I have personally done all these things when presented with something I simply didn’t know how to navigate. They all work well to some degree. When I started thinking of the concept of resonance in terms of decision making, I had a new tool with which to disentangle the knotted mess of possible paths to take.

If we think about our life as a symphony and the different decisions we make as musical notes, each decision then has its own sound, with its own beauty or sharpness or flatness. Some are clearly not the right note for this time in our lives; many others might all sound appealing and could feasibly work in the larger musical piece. The question is, thus, which exact note/choice do we choose that would best compliment the music at this place and time of our lives?

I say we choose that note/option which, when carried out, brings all the other aspects of our life to a “higher amplitude”. Think of the graph above: which note, which vibration, which choice is the one through which you can be ushered to new heights precisely because it represents your natural frequency?

This is obviously a very abstract concept, so perhaps a concrete example might help to clarify what I mean here. I am now in my late twenties, and over the past decade, I have served in many professional roles: political organizer, social justice trainer, educator, staffer at a Buddhist monastery, grant writer, program coordinator, and more. Each role has nourished me deeply and I could feasibly serve in any of them for the rest of my life and be very good at it. They would all make me quite happy, too. As my father likes to say, “my daughter is a Renaissance woman, a Jane of all trades — she can do just about anything!” Obviously, this is a loving exaggeration, but the point is that I have many paths available to me when it comes to career. This is a blessing not all people can claim for themselves, so I am truly grateful for the privilege of having a choice in what I can do with my life.

Very much to my surprise, when I saw my now-beloved pastor the first time I ever went to church at the age of 26, a small but clear voice inside my spirit said: “I want to be that.” I was a doubter and did not actively believe in God at the time so you can imagine I was incredibly confused by the internal voice. I dismissed it as bizarre and humorous. I imagined I was attracted to the fact that she was facilitating learning in a spiritual context, which I myself had already done to varying degrees in my capacities as a Buddhist practitioner and training facilitator. I imagined I liked the fact she was in a leadership role and a public speaker. I imagined all sorts of things to explain away the confusing statement that had arisen within me.

Yet slowly, surely, over time I began to realize what actually happened upon meeting my pastor was that my natural frequency had been struck; I just hadn’t known what that would feel or “sound” like before it happened. By going to church these past couple years, by developing a deeper friendship and “professional” relationship with my pastor by becoming a deacon, and by listening more and more to my own internal symphony and figuring out what notes sound best within my being, it has become very clear that the path of becoming a minister is exactly the right path for me to follow at this time. I thus recently submitted my applications to divinity school and hope to begin my pursuit of a Master of Divinity degree in the fall of 2019.

Whether or not I become an actual pastor is beside the point to me. Maybe I’ll become a chaplain, or maybe I’ll be pointed towards some other path during my studies. But to walk the path of ordination right now feels exactly right and I know the journey will eventually lead me to where I am most called to serve.

Coming to the understanding that I want to become a spiritual leader — namely, a Christian minister — required patience, trust, and developing a sense of comfort within discomfort. It required that I admit I was both enthused at the thought of becoming a religious leader and embarrassed by it (because, according to modern standards, religious people are foolish, right?). It required that I learn to let go of my obsession with what others think of my life choices and listen instead to what notes the orchestra within me wishes to play, and what the conductor of my life (God, my Higher Self, etc.) is inviting me to do.

As a Christian, when I think of resonance, I think of tuning myself to God’s frequency. When in prayer, instead of listing things I hope God will do for me, I try to align my being with God so I can become resonant with the divine plan and flow with the larger patterns of existence. It’s a subtle and confusing practice at times, but again: once you hit resonance, you know it. (Fr. Richard Rohr speaks to all this beautifully in his short meditation A Tuning Fork.)

When I hit spiritual resonance, God and I begin to amplify one another. On my end, that means I act from a place of greater unity, strength, and peace. Even if there are multiple good options for me to choose from, I usually sense which one is more “in tune” with God’s plans. I pursue this path as best I can even if it’s not what I or others initially wanted to do because I trust infinite God more than my finite self. I might be afraid to follow God’s path because of the vulnerabilities it hoists upon me (such as the possibility of rejection, uncertainties about my future, etc.), but I do so anyway because I know God’s plans always yield more love than I could conjure up on my own.

With practice, I believe everyone has the capacity to sense this kind of resonance and act from it, even non-religious folks. In essence, to sense resonance is to deepen one’s intuition. To deepen one’s intuition is to learn how to distinguish the signal from the noise of our minds and follow that signal at all costs, even if it means taking risks and navigating unknowns. It is an act of faith in oneself and the larger process.

The only way to get better at this is by doing it. Doing it allows us to hear with greater clarity what the voice deep within and/or beyond us is calling us to do. In doing what this voice wishes for us, we come into greater resonance with ourselves and the world around us. In so doing, the symphony of our lives is taken to new heights; we feel more in tune with ourselves, others, and the larger process.

Spanning outward from the personal realm, I believe this concept of resonance can also be applied to social systems. What societal structures open us up and lift each individual and group to new heights of fulfillment? What social systems allow for the whole to be amplified and sustained? What policies honor all persons, leaving no one at risk of a socially-imposed, premature death? As a radical progressive who believes in a beloved revolution, I believe such a resonant society looks like one in which the government supports the poor, celebrates difference across gender and race and all other facets of identity, opens borders, and functions from a philosophy of abundance rather than one of lack. It is a culture of listening rather than dictating; of accountable forgiveness and amend-making instead of punishment and excuse-offering. It is a space where interdependence is validated instead of independence.

In short, a resonant society is one that is in alignment with our human essence and calls forth the parts of ourselves which mystics across time, space, and faiths speak to: that is, our interconnected, abundant, transformative, and whole nature. Such a society, though we’ve never lived in one, is possible precisely because it is in our very nature to achieve such resonance. While it requires practice, it is possible. Indeed, the possible is only possible through practice.

Whether on personal, divine, or social levels, I find the concept of resonance to be one of the most helpful forms of imagery when navigating unknown and complex situations. It helps me distinguish signal from noise. It helps me remember I don’t have to exhaust myself, that I can simply listen for the right frequency and follow its directives upon locating it. Resonance is what guides me amidst the glorious messiness of life.

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The inspiration for the post’s image: I took this photo of the Grand Tetons during a cross-country road trip in 2011. When my brother and I arrived in the national park, we turned a bend and there stood the Grand Tetons, a monumental mountain range that juts out from the earth to an elevation of 14,000 feet. I gasped so loudly that he halted the car, afraid I was having an asthma attack (note: I don’t have asthma, but apparently my breathing pattern was similar to that of an asthmatic). I unexpectedly started to cry; something about those mountains moved me to tears. Our entire stay was a deeply spiritual experience for me that I reflect on regularly to this day. It was one of the first times I ever felt deeply resonant with the world around me. Even though I wouldn’t have called it this at the time, it was an experience of communion with God.